Wednesday, August 17, 2011

410 years of "ugh"

Thanks to a clever Google Doodle, I now know that Pierre de Fermat was born 410 years ago today. He was a lawyer and amateur mathematician.

Amateur mathematician. That phrase boggles my mind. I dislike math SO much it's hard to imagine sitting down with a cold beer on a lazy summer afternoon and doodling through some theorems like they were crossword puzzles. Yet that's exactly what he did.

And he did it so well that his most popularly famous work, his so-called "last theorem,"went unproven for 358 years! I won't pretend to understand all the theory behind it, but the gist is that he jotted down in the margins of a book on math (which he was presumably reading for fun) that he had just come up with a "truly marvelous proof" of the theorem that no three positive integers a, b, and c can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn for any integer value of n greater than two.

Geez, my head hurt just writing that.

Anyway, the kicker here is that according to his scribble, he didn't have room to write out the entire thing in the margins. And if he wrote it down anyplace, it was lost to the annals of time.

That meant that, I dunno, nearly 20 generations--did I mention that math isn't my strong suit?--of mathematicians spent the years between 1637, the year of his scribble, and 1995 trying to prove it.

I appreciate the intellectual challenges and pleasures of attacking a problem. I do not appreciate the pleasures of doing math, however. But in the end, I have to applaud a guy who does massive theoretical equations in his spare time for fun--and kept thousands of professionals busy for centuries after his death. Everyone needs a hobby.

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